READ : Mark 10:45
The cross: What it meant in the ancient world, what it means to Jesus, and what it means to us.
This message is about the case for Christian faith. I feel more than ever now that I’m treading on holy ground when I speak of Jesus’ dying. There are great mysteries here, far beyond any power of mine to grasp fully. I only seek to be faithful to the witness of Jesus and his apostles about the meaning of this dreadful yet wonderful event on the Friday we call “Good” the crucifixion of Jesus.
Let me tell you how that event first struck me. I was a young boy not interested in church or Sunday school, in fact, always rebelling against having to go. But I saw the film “The King of Kings.” I remember what a deep impression it made on me that Jesus, though innocent, though loving, had to suffer so much. It was the same sense that I had recently in a more powerful way in seeing the movie “The Passion of the Christ.”
I have a book at home that lists what the writers imagine to be the hundred greatest events in the history of the world. I was very interested when I got this book to see what would be said about the Christian faith. And it’s striking that one of the hundred greatest events listed in this book was the crucifixion of Jesus. Now isn’t that remarkable that one historical person’s death should be so ranked. And a death by cruel torture? What does that say about the one who died there? We might well ask the editors, “What about his birth?” Yes, and his resurrection? If the claims of Jesus are true, these are surely the three greatest events in human history.
Think about the proportion of space given to the passion of Jesus in the four Gospels. Christ’s last week and death, compared to all of the life and ministry: 40% in Matthew, almost 60% in Mark, 33% in Luke, 50% in John. That period from the triumphal entry to his ascension has tremendous gravity in the Gospels. And Paul too is always reminding his readers about the Cross. Christ is the central figure in the New Testament, and his death is the central event in his career.
What Was Crucifixion to the Ancient World?
Now think about it, friends, what was crucifixion to the ancient world? It was remarkably widespread from the third century B.C. onward among many peoples in various forms. Leaders seemed to lack the power or will to abolish it in spite of its horrendous cruelty.
Its usual victims were political or military. Among the Romans it was mainly the lower classes slaves, violent criminals, rebels against the state, or traitors.
It was said to be supremely effective as a deterrent to crime because it was always carried out publicly on a crossroads, on a hill or at the scene of a crime.
What inhuman cruelty we see in this way of execution! It seemed to satisfy a primitive lust for revenge and the sadistic cruelty of rulers and the masses. It was usually associated with other forms of torture, especially flogging. At relatively small expense and great public effect, the criminal could be tortured to death, sometimes for days in an unspeakable way. And by the public display of a usually naked victim at a prominent place, it also represented the utmost in humiliation and shame. Quite often the victims were never buried. It was a gruesome picture that the victim later served as food for wild beasts and birds of prey. Being denied burial was the worst of all things in the ancient world.
There was a stigma attached to crucifixion in the Roman world so much that citizens wouldn’t even pronounce the word cross.
What Did His Approaching Death Mean to Jesus?
What did Jesus’ approaching death by crucifixion mean to him? Early in his ministry he seemed to discern and embrace his destiny. At his baptism, though he was without sin, he submitted to a sinner’s baptism, identifying himself with a lost race. In his temptation he recognized that every temptation was an effort by the Evil One to divert him from the way that would lead to the cross. He everywhere pressed toward this, set his face to go to Jerusalem, wouldn’t be deflected by anything, even the well-meaning remonstrances of his friends. He pressed on in an awesome way toward this destiny that awaited him.
And he spoke repeatedly of his coming rejection and suffering. You can read the Gospels. There are three chapters in Mark, 8, 9, and 10, where Jesus speaks in detail of the rejection, the suffering, betrayal and death that he will face when he goes to Jerusalem.
Also he sees his death as a cup set before him by God, handed to him. A “cup” and a “baptism.” He says “the cup that the Father has given me, shall I not drink it?” (Mark 10:38). He prays in Gethsemane, “Remove this cup from me, Father, if it be possible” (Mark 14:36). He viewed this as the utmost in horror and forsakeness. He became distressed, agitated, deeply grieved. He wept with strong crying and tears (Heb. 5:7). The darkness descended upon him, the awfulness of separation from God when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).
He saw it also as a death for others. I wonder if the first time was when Jesus read Isaiah 53 (vv. 11-12) and realized that it was his story. That conviction was with him throughout his ministry, that this awful submission was something he was doing for others. He was laying down his life for his sheep (John 10:11-15). He was the Son of Man who came, not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. He spoke at the Last Supper about his blood of the covenant that was poured out for many and said, “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all people to me” (Mark 14:34-35). That’s what this event meant in the life of Jesus.
Who was responsible?
Now when you think about it, who was responsible for Jesus’ death? That’s a question that has appeared often in the wake of the moving picture “The Passion.” Well, the religious leaders certainly were. They delivered him out of envy. They persuaded the crowd to choose Barabbas instead of Jesus (Matt. 27:17-18, 20).
The crowd in blood lust cried out for his death. When they were asked, “What should I do with Jesus,” they said, “Let him be crucified” (vv. 21-23).
The Roman authorities were responsible. Pilate, even though he realized that Jesus was innocent, tried to wash his hands of any responsibility, gave him over to be flogged and then to be crucified. (v. 24).
The soldiers were responsible. They stripped him, put on him a scarlet robe in mockery, a crown of thorns, with a reed in his hand – mock worship! They spat on him and struck him (vv. 27-31).
And the disciples – he, when he was all alone, was forsaken by them. One of them betrayed him. One of them denied him (Matt. 26:47-49, 56, 73-75). And not only they, but ourselves. The witness of Isaiah is, “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned everyone to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6; 1 Peter 2:24-25).
The powers of evil were responsible. “This is your hour,” Jesus said, “and the power of darkness.” It was the devil who put betrayal in the heart of Judas and who engineered all the events that led up to the crucifixion (John 13:2, 26, 27; Luke 22:53).
And yet over all of this, strangely and wonderfully, the Lord in his sovereign power and grace was at work. It was the Lord finally who laid on him the iniquity of us all. It was God’s love shining in that act where Jesus gave his life. God shows his love for us, says Paul, “in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” God has made him, Jesus, to be sin, the embodiment of sin for us so that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. So God somehow was over it all.
Why Did Jesus Walk the Via Dolorosa this Way of Sorrow?
Why did Jesus walk the Via Dolorosa, this way of sorrow? In loving obedience to his Father’s will. He came to do the Father’s will. He said, “My meat is to do the will of him who sent me” (John 4:34) “and to finish his work.” And he walked that way so that the world might know that he loves the Father (John 14:31). Out of loving obedience he moved toward the cross.
But also in self-giving love for us, even in his mortal agony, he cares about his mother and commits her to his friend. He prays for his mockers and murderers, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). He says to the penitent thief beside him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
A Fitting Response
What fitting response can there be from us? “A broken and a contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17). “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride.”
Another response is the simple receiving of Christ by faith, saying something like this to him, “Oh Lord, I trust you as the one who died for me. I welcome you as my Savior and Lord. I call on your name.”
And then along with that undying gratitude and devotion. We’re called to be thankful for everything through him. We want to say as Paul did, “He loved me and gave himself for me” (Colossians 3:17). I remember these wonderful words of C.T. Studd, “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him.” “What language shall I borrow to thank thee dearest friend, for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end. Oh, make me thine forever and should I fainting be, Lord, let me never, never outlive my love for thee.”
The “offense” of the Cross
There’s also the “offense” of the cross, friends, that Paul writes about. To the Greeks it was foolishness. To the Jews a scandal. To Romans an obscenity (Gal. 5:11). Imagine preaching in the first century world that God entered our history as a man, died the unspeakable death of crucifixion, and is now to be worshiped as Lord of all! Unthinkable madness to those people! The cross for them was the symbol of evil, agony, shame, and terror.
But do you know what has happened, friends? Such is the power of the love of Christ that he was not disgraced by the cross. He overcame it. He transformed it! Now people put crosses on church buildings or mercy vehicles. They wear them reverently around their necks. What is the cross a symbol of now? Jesus’ self-giving, self-sacrificing love! “Oh, were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”